Monday, March 08, 2010

Haunted by family history

Most of the people who knew my father know that he was obsessed with family history. He researched and compiled and always checked things out on travels. One of my great memories of him is a trip I took with him to the town of Snow, Georgia, where a first cousin of my mom's whom neither of us ever remembered meeting put us up and gave us a tour of the town cemeteries, focusing on our ancestors' graves. Best moment: we're standing before his grandmother's grave (my great-grandmother's) and he says, "You know, that funeral might have been the last time I saw your mama." I looked at the headstone and expressed doubt that my mom had been able to make that trip. He insisted. I said, "No way. She had just given birth to me 3 weeks before." Without missing a beat, he replied, "Look at that! We have met before. You were here, too!" Sure enough, my dad vouched for the fact that my mom made the trip with me along for the ride.

Anyway, I say all this because, at some point in the last week, looking for something else entirely, I came across the binder I have that represents the "best summary" of all my dad's work on family history. And I've been playing around with it on And I've already made some amazing discoveries. Of course, I wonder what my dad might have known or suspected about these things. I always felt like dad was a little more interested in connecting the dots than in the stories, so who knows.

So, just logistically, I want you to picture this. I have this big binder with all this information (I haven't even typed in half of what I have yet). And as I put in each new name, about 80% of the time, the system suggests hints to me--other people's trees, sometimes census records, or even pictures (usually of headstones)--but usually, the parents' names come up and I confirm that it's the same as (or close) to my dad's info and import it.

I'm paying a lot of attention to people in Massachusetts and Connecticut (of which there are quite a few), because I'm so close and I'm starting to think a pilgrimage might be in order. (Actually, I'm realizing that had my dad lived to the point that I moved here, he would have moved in with me and used my place as a base for exploring our New England roots.)

Anyway, my head was spinning a bit because I discovered my Great x 10 grandfather Benjamin Scott was born in 1612 (dad actually had the name and the birth year) and was married (1642) and buried (1654) in Rowley, Massachusetts, which really isn't far away at all. So, I'm kind of excited and thinking about a trip. As I look at Rowley on the map, I admit that two of its neighbors stood out for their historical significance: Plymouth and Salem. But I really didn't think much about it. And then I clicked on the picture someone had linked to his wife, Margaret Stephenson Scott. I could see from the thumbnail that it was a headstone, which didn't surprise me in the least. But what I saw written there shocked me:

In case you can't make it out with the shading: Margaret Scott, Hanged, Sept 22, 1692. Did I mention that Rowley is in the greater Salem area? If you want to read more on her story, here's a page from another of her descendants.

Let me simply say this. One of the things I read on her conviction suggests that she was a widow who had had some sort of difficulty raising her kids. I'm not sure what that means. It looks like she gave birth to 11, but only about half made it beyond the age of 10. That certainly wasn't uncommon. Most of her adult children seemed to be flourishing in a little town 50 miles west by the time of the execution. One does wonder why she didn't go with them.

I want to be careful how I say this next part. I think the Salem witch trials were all about hysteria, about a panicked reaction to threats ranging from sicknesses to deaths and raids at the hands of natives. I think it beyond bizarre that they regularly admitted the testimony of people who said they saw specters and likenesses of people harming people and that was often enough for convictions. But it also seems to me that people who "play well with others" are likely not going to be accused of witchcraft. And, given our recent family history, I do find myself wondering if mental illness might not have been a factor.

Of course, Margaret may simply have been the victim of even more mundane dynamics: she was a poor widow whose husband had only left her a small estate and whose children had left town even before their father died. But it seems like those same dynamics might correspond to a woman who struggled with mental health issues.

Either way, I find myself haunted by this finding on so many levels. So strange to discover a family connection to such an infamous event in history.